Irene: I found him.
If there was anything the Community would appreciate, it was brevity. With Caelum rounding up the less talented hackers in our roster, there wasn’t any reason to tiptoe around potentially dangerous subjects. They’d given me an order, inasmuch as any group of full-fledged members could actually order another, to locate the Mouse. Through him, they hoped to ward off Caelum or to at least buy themselves a little time, in order to formulate a better defensive strategy.
I knew that wasn’t likely. If Caelum’s leash was being held by the Magi, he wouldn’t cease his attacks until I’d been uncovered and the sporadic assaults on the Magi’s criminal enterprises stopped. But, with the Mouse out from under siege and with the forces of the Community in my corner, it was possible that we might be able to accelerate the war effort. Multiple attacks on different fronts wouldn’t just increase the pressure; it would also serve as effective camouflage, ensuring that no single group received the Magi’s full attention and the overwhelming weight of their forces.
That could come later. Right now, I needed to stop the clock.
Irene: America. He left breadcrumbs for us to find. I found them.
Frizzle: Doesn’t sound like something he’d do.
Gate: How are you so sure it isn’t someone just pretending to be the Mouse?
Irene: There are personal connections. Things that only he and I would know.
Max: Are you sure about that? Talented hackers can find almost anything, if they’re motivated.
Despite the time sensitive nature of their assignment, I noticed that Max and Gate were wary of mentioning Caelum’s name. It was a strange position to take. Everyone in the chat room was well-aware of the history. We’d all been involved, in one form or another, with the effort that had…if not taken Caelum down, at least it had contributed to his decision to subside into the background. And, if he had returned or chose to involve himself in unfolding events, we’d all be on the same chopping block. What reason could they have to avoid the name itself, as if typing it out would summon him like Beetlejuice into our private room?
I had to remind myself that Max, Frizzle, and Gate were all humans, at their respective ends of the connection. Their talents notwithstanding, they all had lives outside of the digital world, same as me. Just as I went out of my way to avoid topics that made me uncomfortable – Mila, most recently; before that, my previous relationship with Devlin – it stood to reason that they might also be terrified of having their secrets exposed. Avoiding Caelum’s name wouldn’t necessarily increase the chances of a happy resolution but, if it were a superstition that made them feel better, I was content to allow them the short-lived fiction.
Irene: If someone found that information out, we’d be in a lot bigger trouble than we already are.
Gate: I don’t trust it. We’ve been looking for the Mouse for weeks and you find him in a couple of days? It’s too easy.
Irene: Not if he was specifically hoping that I’d be the one searching for him. He didn’t ask any of you for help, after all.
Gate: I’ve got my own questions about that.
Paranoia was one thing. It was a reasonable reaction under the circumstances, perhaps even the most reasonable reaction. But that didn’t extend to throwing undisguised suspicion my way, when I’d exposed myself to familial complications for the sake of saving the Community from public exposure.
Irene: Maybe it only took me a few days because I was actually out here trying to find him, instead of hiding behind a computer screen and hoping someone else would take care of the problem for me.
Gate: Sure. Or maybe you’re the one who ran the Mouse to ground in the first place. You’ve been sketchy the last couple of months, and we’ve all noticed it.
True enough. I’d been busy living my life, which hadn’t left me a lot of time to consider how my strange absences and equally strange requests might look to an outside observer. Gate was an asshole, but at least her behavior had a basis in reality. I couldn’t explain to her why she was wrong, though, and I couldn’t really defend myself. As far as I knew, Gate was another one of the Magi’s deep cover agents. Maybe even a sleeper agent who wasn’t aware of her true employer’s identity. Allowing even the slightest detail to slip about my true agenda might end up leaking to nefarious parties.
Like Mila had said, we were all in this together. It wasn’t my place to risk the safety of the team, just so that I could defend my ego. Thankfully, Frizzle picked that moment to step in and bring the nascent argument to an abrupt close.
Frizzle: We don’t have the time to waste on this. Gate, you were the one who wanted her to find the Mouse. She did.
Irene: At least someone in this chat has some common sense.
Frizzle: That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of this, Irene. You found him; what are you going to do next?
Max: Can you get him to log back on?
Irene: I can try, but I don’t think he’ll do it without some…assurances. Someone was tracking him despite his own countermeasures. If he uses his own system, that same party is likely to latch onto his specific signature and find him again.
Frizzle: Then what? We didn’t want to re-establish contact with him for its own sake.
Gate: Exactly. Whoever he pissed off is coming after all of us. If he can’t or won’t help us, then we need to consider whether or not his membership should be extended.
For someone willing to openly attack my credibility, Gate was displaying an awful lot of euphemistic evasion. She wasn’t talking about membership in the Community; she meant throwing the Mouse to the wolves, as a sacrifice, in hopes that Caelum or whoever else would content themselves with one notorious hacker and would then leave the rest of us alone. It was a mercenary sensibility, devoid of loyalty…but we were all professional criminals. Just because Devlin ran his teams with honor and camaraderie, that didn’t mean every individual who made a living on the wrong side of the law would operate the same way.
The idea of betraying the Mouse hadn’t occurred to me…or, actually, it had occurred, but only in a roundabout fashion. I knew that Mila would suggest cutting him loose, just as soon as she was caught up on events, and so I’d run through a list of reasons why that move wouldn’t help us. Primarily, the Mouse didn’t actually know anything about our attacks on the Magi’s strongholds. Uncovering his real name and kidnapping him off the streets wouldn’t give our adversaries the information they were after. When they discovered that, odds were high that they’d simply dispose of the man and return to the attack. It would give us a few days of respite, at most, before the Community was under assault again.
More important than the logistical reasons, however, was the fact that he’d trusted me. I’d never gotten into the habit of betraying people who trusted me. Devlin didn’t do it. Michel probably didn’t do it, but I couldn’t actually know for sure without specifically asking. And Mila…Mila didn’t offer loyalty to anyone, besides the contract, and I could easily imagine that no one had trusted her – again, outside of the contract – before Devlin and me. As the Mouse wasn’t covered under the protective auspices of whatever deal Mila and the Lady had struck, it would seem perfectly logical to her to use him as a smokescreen.
As long as I made my intractability on the position clear, though, I suspected that she’d follow orders. Once we could get him on board – more on board, if not fully – and he proved himself to be an asset, there was at least a chance that she’d warm to him.
Irene: No need for all of that. I’ll meet him.
The chat went silent for almost a minute. I used the sixty seconds to check my phone for the date: Friday, a little after two-thirty. The Mason Murer would be open for another three or four hours. Six o’clock would be just after closing time, but the building’s security wasn’t overwhelming. A little bit of work would cripple the security system and there weren’t physical guards to deal with. I’d be able to slip in, meet with the Mouse, and slip out without any undue trouble.
Except, of course, for meeting the Mouse in person, but I’d cross that bridge when I reached it.
Max: You’re sure about that?
Irene: I don’t see any other option.
Gate: I want to talk to him too, but I’m not going to meet him in person.
Irene: I thought you might. That’s why I set up a VPN for you all to use. It’ll go active just before the meeting and delete itself when we’re finished.
I typed out the address for the VPN and posted it in a subfolder on the Community’s servers. With that information and their own passwords, the remaining members of the Community would be able to effectively log into my computer while I was using it. They wouldn’t have administrator rights or access to anything private – those files were sealed away behind staggeringly excessive encryption protocols – but they’d be able to access the local network without physically being present. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was the only one I’d been able to come up with in the short amount of time I had available.
Frizzle: You’re using the security protocols I showed you?
Irene: And some extra measures I picked up over time. Two-factor authentication, MAC filtering…no one will have access to your information but me and even I won’t know what passwords you entered. Unless you don’t trust me?
Frizzle: I’m not the one who said that. Max, if you want to sit this out, I’d understand.
Gate: And let the four of you decide what happens to my life? I don’t think so. I’ll just be taking my own safety precautions. In case.
Just because no one else had anything on the matter, I didn’t believe for an instant that Frizzle and Max wouldn’t also be reinforcing their own systems as soon as the conversation ended. It wouldn’t be a matter of distrust for them, as much as good practice. Gate’s paranoia made perfect sense, viewed from the lens of someone without all of the information.
Irene: Do what you have to. I’ll activate the VPN tomorrow, at five. Meeting is a hour and a half after that, so you should have enough time to check out the local network to your liking.
Gate: It’s your show, Irene.
Frizzle: See you at five.
They logged off, almost as one. I suspected that they’d simply moved to another private chat room to discuss their next move. It was irritating but, again, I didn’t exactly have room to complain. I had my own secret strategy meeting to conduct.
The team and I were seated at a Starbucks, taking advantage of a poorly secured wireless access point emanating from an office building across the street. No one paid any attention to a woman on her laptop, fervently typing with one hand as she downed a chai tea with the other. Michel and Mila sat on the same side of the table, opposite me, talking about the finer points of some arm lock; Devlin was next to me, pretending to be interested in something on his phone. Our legs brushed against each other under the table. It wasn’t enough to be uncomfortable, but the light touch was noticeable in a way that might have distracted me in less dire circumstances.
Devlin noticed a shift in my body language, because he looked up from his phone. “What did they say?”
“They’re in,” I said. “Or they will be. They can’t risk doing anything else.”
“You’re sure about that?”
I shrugged. “As sure as I am about anything, yeah. This isn’t the kind of thing that they have experience dealing with; odds are, they’ll default to following instructions until they can get their feet under them.”
“You don’t have experience dealing with this,” Mila said. She didn’t look up from her drink, which was about ninety-percent sugar and ten-percent foam.
“No,” I countered, “I don’t. But I do work…well, closer to the field than they do, and I’ve been more active lately. Besides, they don’t even know the full breadth of what we’re up against. They’ll let me take point and, if things go wrong, I’m pretty sure they’ll let me take the fall for them.”
“Speaking of that,” Devlin said, “I want to talk about this plan again. You’re sure there’s no other way for you to deal with the Mouse situation without meeting him in person?”
I shook my head and downed a mouthful of tea. The double shot of espresso sent a pleasant buzz along my nerve endings. “None that I can think of on such short notice. They won’t call off the dogs until they’ve had an opportunity to talk to the Mouse and they aren’t going to come out from cover in order to do that. This is the only compromise they’d be willing to accept.”
“I won’t pretend to understand that aspect of things. But could someone else go in your place? As far as the Mouse knows, you could be anyone. You might not even be a woman, right? So we could…I don’t know, there are some inexpensive local options I could get in contact with. A few hours and they can put on a good impersonation of your speech patterns well enough to fool someone who’s never actually met you.”
The suggestion was a little too casual to be actually offhand. I wasn’t sure whether to feel flattered that Devlin had been spending his days looking into ways to protect me or insulted at the idea that thought I needed his protection to begin with.
“All it would take is one technical question to throw everything off,” I said, erring on the side of ‘flattered.’ A single delay or a second of hesitation could spook him and then we’d be back where we started. Worse, even.”
Devlin leaned back in his chair, pouting slightly.
If he was already upset, I figured I might as well drop all of the bombs on him at the same time. “Something else you guys should know, too.”
Devlin and Michel perked up slightly. Mila glanced up momentarily from her sugary abomination.
“He’s going to be skittish,” I said, “and he won’t know who to trust. He’s already established contact with me and he’s expecting a woman. But he only agreed to a meeting at a museum after hours, and he only did that because he wanted to control any visitors. Anyone not authorized to be at our little meeting will send him running, so –“
“No!” Devlin and Mila exclaimed, at the exact same time. Their combined volume was enough that a group of college kids to our right jerked in surprise. Mila gave them a cool look and the undergrads returned to their own laptop.
“No,” Devlin repeated, quieter but with much more insistence. “You are not going to meet him alone. Out of the question.”
I arched an eyebrow as high as I could manage. “And you’re going to stop me?”
“He won’t,” Mila said. “I will. I’m supposed to keep you safe and I can’t do that if you’re going to walk yourself directly into trouble.”
This time, I’d taken the time to consider Mila’s reaction. She wouldn’t be thrilled about my decision and she was more than capable of stopping me. But she was a ‘point a to b’ thinker and I knew how to appeal to that ruthless practicality.
“Look at it this way,” I said. “If the Mouse goes into hiding, the Community goes to war. That takes away possible assets we could use later. If the Mouse gets captured or subverted the Magi, the Community still goes to war and then we’ve got additional resources being devoted to neutralizing anything I can do to help. This is the best move and you know it’s the best move.”
Mila pursed her lips together and thought about the problem. I could almost hear the lines of inquiry opening and closing in her mind. We didn’t know what the Mouse looked like, so she couldn’t just grab him off of the street. There was no guarantee that he wasn’t keeping an eye on the museum, on the off chance that someone else might be monitoring the building. And I’d laid out an irrefutable argument: without the Mouse, we lost the Community as potential aid. With Caelum rampaging through the digital countryside, we couldn’t afford to lose allies.
“You’re going to be armed,” she said finally. “Not just the taser, either.”
“I can’t carry a gun into the building,” I said. I left out my own reluctance to carry a firearm. She wouldn’t have cared about that.
“Didn’t say anything about a gun. You’re as likely to hurt yourself as anybody else. I’ll figure something out.”
“And you’ll be on comms,” Devlin added. “We’ll be nearby and we’ll work out some code word. The second you say that, we’re coming in and getting you out, no questions asked.”
“Fine, fine,” I said, feigning exasperation.
In reality, their concern was actually heartwarming in a weird way. Pointless, but heartwarming. I’d been working with Mila long enough that I was fairly confident in my ability to handle one hacker, but I didn’t want to raise a fuss about the matter. It was easier to let Mila dictate the terms of my protection and just circumvent them later, than it was to argue the point to begin with.
“I still don’t like this,” Mila said. “Something feels…wrong. Like we’re missing something obvious.”
“I don’t like it either,” I said. I finished my tea and placed both of my palms flat on the table in front of me. “But unless you’ve got another idea, I don’t see any other way for us to play this out.”
Mila stared into her drink, frowning slightly. When she looked up, her expression was set in a grim line. Her silence was answer enough.